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@The Arts Unit Art Bites – Characterisation – 10. Konstantin Stanislavski fundamental questions

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JANE SIMMONS: Hi, everyone. I'm Jane Simmons from The Arts Unit, the Drama Performance Officer here for the Department of Education. This is episode 10 in our 12-part characterisation series. I feel like you should get a diploma at the end of this. In our last couple of episodes, we start looking at Konstantin Stanislavski and his system of acting for realism and belief.

And we're extending on this today, examining his fundamental questions, and given circumstances, and actor uses to examine the dimensions of his character in order to realise all the elements that contextualise the character's situation and motivation. We, then, as actors use that information to create belief for the audience.

Think of all the things that make up who you are. We are complex human beings, more than one thing, and affected by many things. For instance who I am when I'm hungry is very different than when I've just taken a huge meal. It's like, get out of my way when I'm hungry, or hangry, as it's better known. Or when I'm cold or hot, there are many external factors that affect us as well as internal factors.

Consider our relationships. A scene set on Mother's Day is a very different experience for someone whose mum has died than it might be for someone who has a great living relationship with their mum, or someone who has a terrible conflict with their mum, or someone who is one of six children, as opposed to an only child.

Now, we respond to things differently depending on some of the things that we've looked at previously, such as backstory, your objectives, intentions, and what we're learning about today, the fundamental questions and given circumstances. Your response should be in the realm of acceptable belief. Would this character respond this way to the circumstances, given what we know about them?

If you've ever heard someone's actions or behaviour described in the line, that was really out of character, it means that from what we know about that person, how they responded was unexpected or unusual. Often if someone's on trial, they'll bring in character witnesses to discuss whether what they've been accused of is something you might have expected from them, or whether it was completely out of character.

Our responses to situations are connected to our history, our needs, our environment, our wants, our personality traits, or our self-image. Our reactions to people, places, and things can be determined by asking some fundamental questions as developed by Stanislavski.


So here we go. Question one, who am I? Well, that's the million dollar question, isn't it? Think of who you are physically as well as emotionally, and what is the life history and backstory that you have? All of your history and previous experiences have shaped who you are.

Question two, where am I? Well, what's your location and what is that place like? Is it indoors, outdoors, what country? What's the geography and climate, the conditions? What's the space like? Question three, when is it? What time of day or night, what time of year, what time in history?

Question four, what do I want? Now this leads us back to our objectives and our super objective. So what is my character's want, desire, or need, and what's my super objective, my big overall goal or life objective? Is it to be the world's first trillionaire? And what's the objective then of the play, to take over Amazon?

What's my scene objective? To undermine confidence in my boss. Question five, why do I want it? So what's my motivation for my objective? Maybe you grew up poor and you think obscene amounts of money will make you happy. Maybe you want to end world hunger, and you need that much money to do it.

Question six, how will I get it? Well, these are your actions and your tactics. It is the psychological and emotional means of influencing and affecting other characters. Essentially, it is the way I achieve my objective. Question seven, what must I overcome? My obstacles, what obstacles are in my way?

Are those obstacles physical, like a person or set of circumstances, or a conflict that's making it really hard to achieve what I want like an internal conflict? OK. So we've looked at the fundamental questions. So let's do some fun activities using some of these questions that you can do with your class, with your friends, or with your family.

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All right. So activity one, we're going to turn this into an endowment scene. Decide for someone to leave the room. So you can pick your person. Can you send them outside the room and make sure they can't hear you? Then once you've done that and they're squirrelled away somewhere, the group needs to decide where you are-- for instance, an office, an airport, a hospital, a gym.

Think of a place where lots of people might be and where you might expect that people might know each other. Then the group needs to decide who that person is. Are they the intern, the boss, the pilot, a nurse, a gym junkie, your annoying neighbour? And then decide when it is. Is it winter, summer, night day, Elizabethan England?

Once you've made those decisions, you're going to bring that person back in and start playing your endowment scene where that other person has to figure out the answers to who, where, and when. Remember, you want to endow them in the scene, maybe a person at a time, by placing them in the scene and giving them clues from your actions, your relationships, your attitude, and your dialogue.

Avoid telling them directly. If I was coming back into the scene and you said, oh, hello, doctor. It's sure cold in this operating theatre in the dark night of winter, well, you've just given me all the answers and the scene's over before it even started. So take your time. Start with whichever one you like.

For instance, if you had endowed me as a doctor in an operating theatre at 3:00 AM during summer in Paris, maybe you'd use an accent when you first greet me as I enter the scene. A-ha. So the first thing I might think is, oh, I'm French. And then you might give me the next clue, perhaps passing me a scalpel, and I think, a-ha, I'm a French surgeon, and so on.

If you give me a clue and I don't get it, maybe someone else might come in and offer something that helps me realise the next piece of information I need to know. And I really want everyone to commit, and get every clue, right, and build your character, and respond accordingly. If I realise I'm French, I need to speak with a French accent.

If I realise I'm a surgeon, I need to behave like a surgeon in the scene. Now, you can go and do your endowment scene. Or if you like, you can press pause and come back after you've finished. Or you can save it to the end of the module. And if you're enjoying the endowments game and finding it easy, you can add in more complicated things like deciding what they want and what is in there why or their obstacle. Have fun with the game.

How can you show the other person who, what, and where, and have them respond appropriately? Enjoy. And then when you're ready, we're going to move on to activity two.

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Now, let's call this one entering and interpreting. So decide on a character and an intention. For instance, a boss about to fire an employee, a doctor having to deliver good or bad news, a student about to go into an exam they're confident or not confident about. Think about your movement, your expression, physical rhythms, your intentions, the environment, and location.

And try to be clear with what you're trying to communicate to your audience without words. Try to aim for a 30-second improvisation to your audience. Spend some time practicing and preparing, and then show your entry into the scene. Sounds are OK, emotional sounds. Words, let's avoid them in that first 30 seconds.

The idea is what you can show them, not tell them. How much of your character, intention, and scene work did they surmise and what given circumstances did they start to build for your character? In fact, did they come up with something even more interesting than you had planned?

You can also play this as a tag game. Once you've done 30 seconds, can someone call freeze, tag you out of the space, take your place, and do the next 30 seconds, and/or the first few lines of your dialogue? Then code phrase again, and someone else can take over, or you can return and continue.

Someone could even come in and start to play the other character in the scene. Now, you can go and play this now if you like and press pause until you're ready to continue, or you can come back to this later.


Activity three, obstacles exercise. I'm going to give you a super objective for this scene. Ready? Your super objective is to have a happy, stress-free family Christmas. That should be easy, right? Wrong, because your activity, either individually or in groups, is to come up with as many obstacles as you can to stop me from achieving my goal.

So I'll start you off. The presents have gone missing. Someone's car is broken down and they can't make it. You get a present you didn't want. The food is spoiled. Uncle Arthur has hijacked dinner with stories about his childhood for over three hours. You have an unexpected and uninvited guest. And there's lots more that you can add.

So now, try to play the same with your super objective, and members of the group have to introduce one at a time an obstacle. And it's your job to save the day. Once you fixed it or dealt with it, allow the scene to advance before someone introduces a new obstacle. Once you've explored the scene, the obstacles, and the super objectives, maybe come up with a whole new super objective, and obstacles, and situations, and do a new scene.

[pop music] [AUDIENCE EXPERTS]

Activity four. Our final activity today is called audience experts. Have two people play out a scene that might happen in real life. For instance, two people out on a first date, a teacher trying to discipline a naughty student, a parent trying to convince their child to go to university, or to work harder, or to tidy their room.

And then appoint a panel of experts, let's say two people, they can be from your class or from your family. And their job is to approve or reject what is happening in the scene depending on whether it is truthful or believable or not. Perhaps one expert is the judge of one performer, and the other expert for the other performer.

The two people play out the scene. If the experts think that someone says something or does something in the scene that they think would be out of character or unbelievable, they honk or they call stop. The performers then must make a new offer or call the word 'advise,' and the expert must tell the performers why they think the offer or the moment is not truthful.

Take turns in being the performers and the experts. It's a lot of fun.

All right, so let's quickly summarise what we've learned today. In order to create more truthful and believable characters, Stanislavski developed fundamental questions an actor must ask about their character. Who am I? Where am I? When is it? What do I want? How do I get it? And what do I need to overcome to get it?

So when we refer to the given circumstances, we are referring to the current situation and the effect that that information such as what the playwright tells us, or the director's choices, or the production elements, how they affect the situation. The given circumstances is the connection and interpretation of the text, the production, and the actor.

For instance, a production of Shakespeare's 'Richard III' set in a World War II bunker will play differently than in the War of the Roses in Elizabethan England. The fundamental questions is the overarching then, now, and next of the character's journey.

So every time you are developing scene work or script work, put those questions front and foremost in your research and rehearsal. It will make for much more interesting and three-dimensional characters. Next episode, we're going to look at the magic if, emotional and muscle memory, and to finish off our Stanislavski modules. I hope to see you all then.

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